I switched on my laptop to check on my holiday resort reservation and a message popped on my screen, an accusing one at that: “What are you doing online on vacation? Checking email or responding to some crisis that requires your intervention? Or just that you cannot get work out of your veins?”. I tried to justify to her that I was not checking mails, nor facing anxiety or withdrawal symptom disconnected from my mail. I was just checking on my bookings and that’s that. “Then why is your corporate IM on?” she chided.
It’s that time of the year when everyone, well almost everyone (travel and hospitality industries excluded) is on vacation. Whichever part of the world you look at, across cultures, companies, industries, everyone is on vacation as evidenced by their “Out Of Office” messages. It’s like the entire world shuts down for a period of 2-3 weeks going out on trips, spending time together with family and/or friends, enjoying snow or the sun, and to that extent business for most comes to grinding slow motion if not fully shut.
Over the years OOO (Out of office) messages have increased during festive seasons and less frequent for rest of the year. Immediate conclusion would be that people are working harder through the year and then taking a good long well deserved vacation. It could also imply that irrespective of travel, vacation, weekend or time of the day, everyone gets their hands on their mobile devices and feel gratification giving attention to whatever came in or responding to mail, or just checking out or updating social status.
Our need to constantly check our smartphones has resulted in a situation that we compulsively want to stay connected all the time. It is now psychological and nothing to do with work or life or the balance that was a discussion in the past. To check my hypothesis I sent messages to about 600+ people in my list; CEOs, Head of business, friends, relatives, and loads of business acquaintances. I received about 200 odd out of office messages telling me that they were on vacation and not likely to respond to messages.
The subject line clearly indicated “Seasons’ Greeting” and thus was not urgent, important, a crisis or life threatening to merit immediate attention or response. Despite this, within 24 hours I received about 70 responses to my messages from those who had set OOO status! Most messages carried a “Sent from a …..” footer. Was it an acknowledgement of the greeting or my hypothesis that we have become slaves to technology? I now know which smartphones they use or service provider they have subscribed to.
There was a time when I would respond to every message that needed a response or I had a view on as soon as it landed in my inbox. Everyone loved it and commended my quick response; I was on 24 hour clock, not that it helped my life at home, I was thumb happy. Is it more to do with the way the stimulus response is changing rather than just work or life? Are there any remedies available beyond old and simple willpower? Is there a way out for the corporate bonded labourers armed with technology that keeps them in chains?
Reality is that this is self-imposed nemesis of time, energy and expectations; if anything indeed merits response, do it, in most cases the urgent or critical will not land in your inbox, people will call you. Messages with scores in “To” or “cc”, rarely require critical review or immediate attention. A 24 hour cooling period is equally good in most cases and works well enough. Exceptions could be individually marked messages that may come to you from your Boss or a peer CXO for information or action.
Driving back from a vacation with the family comprising two teenaged kids, I noticed that both were constantly glued onto the small screen with rapid thumb movements and fleeting expressions as they deftly switched from screen to screen and application to application. There was little communication between us as I maneuvered the traffic and they sent updates ad infinitum. I wonder how the new generation would behave during their vacations or work; would it be in anyway separable for them?
Within a span of a week, twice I was asked the same question in different forums by different people. I don’t know if that was pure coincidence or what is due to the fact that both belonged to different parts of the world and thus had different perspectives. In both cases they were curious to get an alternative view of how CIOs succeed in culturally diverse environments with dissimilar work ethics and realities. What if anything separates the modus operandi and style of the CIOs in the East and the West?
I am not sure if this is a fair comparison or should we be listing the divergence in the approaches; both adapt well to their realities and both have had share of success and challenges. Neither can be said to be better than the other as they address similar opportunities a bit differently. One way of working cannot be transplanted as-is into the other world and expect success; even if the second is a part of the same organization in another geography. Thus global best practices remain good to read, not always workable on the ground.
What separates the CIOs between the West (read US, Canada, and EU) and East (mostly Asia, though the comparison set is largely India). You will hear this from almost every vendor doing business in East, and so will you get a similar message from the CIOs of Indian enterprises or CIOs of the Indian entities of global companies with business interests in India. Despite the recognition I have not come across a formal analysis of such differences in the way of working across markets and geographies.
Everyone agrees that India is a value conscious market; products and services vend at lower margins and discounting is normal. The outsourcing boom in India driven by wage arbitration did not leave too much behind for the Indian companies who had to pay higher wages to get quality skills. Due to this the services play for the Indian market was taken up by mid-sized companies who out-priced their bigger brothers who were happy to take the higher margin business from the West until recession dried up their pipeline.
Software vendors realized that to gain market entry and sustain business, the discount levels had to be different from their home markets. For hardware manufacturers the margins stood squeezed to low single digits, enough to cover marketing and administrative costs, not to make too much money. System integrators and consultants fared a bit better though not by too much; only the subject matter experts and high technology professionals could bill at global rates, in many cases reduced to advisory roles.
CIOs in the West are process driven, like standardization, drive scale though tools and technologies and create predictable outcomes with great contracts and Service Level Agreements between the parties. This is fairly well accepted as a way of doing business and everyone internally and externally aligns to the order and discipline. There is limited flexibility and exceptions are indeed rare. Thus everyone knows where they stand and what the terms of engagement and governance are likely to be.
The East shuns order that takes away individuality; everyone believes they are uniquely different. Standard solutions are frowned upon as they take away the flexibility that casts everyone into the same mold. While contracts are drawn up and SLA signed, they are rarely followed if at all irrespective of the size of deal or financial implications. If there is a change in reality, the first thing customer wants is a change in terms of engagement. If there is an adverse event, SLA is damned, immediate service is expected.
People do business with people and that is reality. Standards can change because the relationship manager changed jobs; who you know overrules contracts or SLA. A call to the right person will get you right resources or help resolve a problem. Relationships score over process every time. Value is paramount and cost is always expected to go south. It is a delicate balance which everyone learns to sustain their business interests. So SLA is measured, penalties rarely enforced; contracts are fought over until signing, rarely referred to afterwards.
I believe that for a global business to sustain, these differences are acknowledged and adapted to. There is no other recourse. For the leader, the CIO, s/he continues to wonder about the debate over the different realities. I am sure there are nuances to each country, market and culture; a global entity takes all in their stride. Employees who work across borders get used to this. For management consultants and their elk, they want to create untenable uniform models as global best practice. All the best to them!
Recently I met a friend whose company had signed a strategic outsourcing deal a few years back with much fanfare and was talked about as one of the first in his industry. His company made news in restricted industry circles and the vendor gained good leverage out of the deal. The long-term deal was expected to create efficiencies which were acknowledged by the Management and the Board. The teams were excited with the prospects of the new engagement and the benefits outlined.
From initial discussion to closure of the deal, it had taken a lot of groundwork between both the teams who toiled for over a year. Setting the baseline was the most rigorous task which required everyone to agree to the “as-is” scenario; number of assets, age and residual life, upgrade and replacement norms, scale-up of the business operations, revenue growth targets, additions to workforce, industry outlook; everything was required to be put in writing to ensure that the contract survives the signatories.
I asked him on how it was going; after going down the journey for close to three years, had they started seeing the benefit of their decision? How was the service delivery and how had the users taken the change? What would be his advice to others who may want to go down the same path? After all not many had signed long-term deals in recent times. He looked at me hard as if trying to understand why I was asking him all that. Seeing no ulterior motive in my query, he responded:
We have decided to terminate the deal; it is not working out. Our problems started during service transition. The team misinterpreted almost every clause and intent; we had to involve the pre-sales team and escalate across layers to get to the shared understanding that went into the contracting. The people on the ground had skills deficit and were unable to come up to the same level of service pre-outsourcing. In every review meeting they promised improvements and then nothing changed.
The commercials were based on certain assumptions of growth and efficiencies. They were expected to make upfront investments on tools and technologies which took longer than committed to materialize. Business had also started slowing down and the cost was beginning to hurt. The vendor was unwilling to accept this and review terms of engagement even though one of the primary benchmarks, cost as percentage of revenue, was broken and going north instead of the promised south.
After much discussion, escalation and negotiation, small tweaks were done to the model which survived a stormy year. When business growth eluded us as per original plan and required deferral of certain initiatives and hardware refresh, the dialogue was not very encouraging. All the spreadsheets that made lot of sense prior to commencement now appeared to be work of fiction. The contract did not allow significant change downward while it captured the upside. Short of suing each other the only recourse was termination.
In recent times there have been many outsourcing contracts that have run into rough weather; what seemed like a great idea in the late 90s and turn of the century have lost charm. Back then everyone was racing to outsource; now it seems that everyone is in a race to find a way out. Most contracts that are coming up for renewal are finding favor with neither incumbent vendor nor new partners. Have the outsourcing benefits suddenly disappeared? What has changed that suddenly makes enterprises shy away?
It is evident that for many who outsourced with large long-term deals with big service providers have not gained the promised benefits. Where did it fall short? Sales organizations did a great job of painting a rosy picture while the delivery and execution team ran out of color red. The gap between intent and execution and the inability to adapt to variability of business has resulted in both sides feeling shortchanged. The advent of newer services and scenarios like RIMS and BYOD has anyway changed the game.
One of the models that I have found survive over others is a deal where service parameters and expectations are reset every year. It requires IT, business and the vendor to work on the same side of the table. I have observed many successful deals that survived multiple challenges; they had clearly defined ownership. When you outsource, you still are accountable and responsible; it is not abdication of responsibility. New models of outcome based engagements are appearing on the horizon, their efficacy is yet to be experienced.
As he entered the room, he was looking quite frustrated to say the least, and he is someone who does not feel frustrated so easily. That raised the curiosity of many in the room who have known him as the “jolly old fellow” always ready to help anyone with a smile. As someone who had been there done that with rarely a fluster it was unusual and appeared unnatural. We naturally gravitated towards him wanting to understand the load of the mountain he was carrying that bowed him down.
He was an acknowledged leader and had been a CIO for close to two decades; his business acumen, industry and domain experience was unparalleled. As a turnaround CIO he had changed IT perceptions and created delivery frameworks in many companies. Through thick and thin he portrayed himself as the savior for challenged business and IT; the image stuck and led to his enviable growth. If he ever had moments of uncertainty or felt overpowered by a situation, no one had the privilege of seeing that.
So the emotion that he displayed was alien to the group; they tentatively edged up to him to seek the reason for his annoyance. What could have flustered the first amongst equals? He looked around at the anticipation and decided to share his situation. It appeared to be an innocuous position which everyone felt should be easily resolvable. As the discussion progressed the perception slowly faded away to leave the group in an exasperated state of mind. It was as if there was no way out.
The CIO was doing well working with the business and the Board; the company had endorsed his plan and strategy including required investments. Everyone was happy with progress, direction and outcomes. He had no reason to worry or think about anything adverse happening or changing his reality. The company underwent a management change and he now had a new boss whose belief system was a contrast to the earlier culture. She challenged everything and wanted to be involved in every meeting with peers and be the gatekeeper to every communication.
She restricted access to the CEO and the Board with a view that their time is valuable and everything that goes upwards or sideways needs her endorsement. The CIO used to a free hand started feeling stifled and struggled to work within the new rules. Every presentation, communication, and meeting request needed approval; the new manager appeared to require control of everything. Other CXOs reporting into her also shared similar experiences. Individually and collectively a solution failed them.
Seeking advice from other peers and earlier managers did not reveal any new solutions. The CEO was either unaware of the discomfort of the team or did not believe that the situation warranted a change. So everyone who was being touched by her cringed and wondered how to overcome the overbearing and autocratic behavior of their new colleague. Her credentials were reasonable, the bravado and projected success larger than life. Her conviction and mannerism did not easily allow for a challenge.
Having run out of options, our CIO friend was thus wallowing in choppy seas with no straws to clutch and wondering if he should look for new opportunities. A few members of the group shared similar experiences in their respective careers where they finally found a way out on their way out. People join companies, people leave their bosses stood proven many times over. Then someone raised an interesting question. “Why not align to the new style and start working to new expectations rather than fighting them?”
It was as if that option was never considered and fight of wills was the only option. Agreed that it is a departure from the conventional and it puts a constraint on the ability of the CIO to continue to innovate, in the absence of any other avenue, this may be a model that allows progress. It had everyone wondering and as they thought deeper, the solution appeared practical though not in the best interest of the flexibility and freedom that typically CIOs enjoy. I am not sure I would choose that path, but then …
What would you do?
“Insecurity is Good”, so said a KOL CIO (Key Opinion Leader, a term I pick from my current industry – pharmaceuticals) in a conference which had over 100 CIOs gathered for a couple of days. It had the audience arise from their post-partum slumber, suddenly awake and scratched their collective heads in an attempt to decipher the deeper meaning (if any) of the phrase. Seeing the disbelief and curiosity on almost everyone’s face, he clarified his stance. The moderator and co-panelists raised more than an eyebrow!
The panel discussion among the CIOs was an attempt to unravel the seed of the perennial discussion on the endangered CIO. All the panelists had close to three decades of experience each with more than half their tenure as the head honcho. They were beacons of success and looked up to by every aspiring and junior CIO. News and views on the waning influence, diminishing power, struggle to hold on to budgets, and finally with every new technology an adverse opinion required a platform to unravel the reality and learn from the learned.
The CIO clarified his position: CIOs should not get into comfort zones and shun risks that may require a different level of thinking. They should be risk takers, and as they take on the unconventional, it is natural to feel insecurity; the opposite being complacency, insecurity is a preferred state of mind. Insecurity ensures that complacency does not set in and that the CIO will think out of the box and explore all options before taking a decision. The calculated risk and the accompanying insecurity are essential to keep the bar of performance high.
Are CIOs really an insecure lot? Are CXOs really insecure about their future? Do they really live in a world of uncertainty with no visibility of how their role will change for the good or worse? Do utterings from a motley lot of opinionates indeed make their daunting predictions require rebuttal? The group largely disagreed and opined that once for all this debate should be put to rest; not just by argument, but by actions which shall strongly signify reality as it is, giving a burial to this postulation.
A potential solution was proposed by one: CIOs are reluctant communicators; they send occasional status reports, outage notices, a project go-live or delay, and a few times an update on the industry or a new trend. A lot of the good work done by the IT organization remains unnoticed or unappreciated only to be negated when something fails. There is almost no match to the communication sent by other CXOs or their functions on specific/generic issues internally or externally. This commentary is rarely matched by IT.
Another viewed the situation as a self-inflicted disease; why are CIOs so gullible that they are willing to be swayed so easily? Why do they have to retaliate to every small instigation? They should ignore the doubters and work towards creating a position for themselves driven by results rather than by debate. I kind of agree with the view except that I cannot let go of a good fight without getting into the ring. Should the CIO take the non-violent biblical path towards his/her success and acknowledgement?
I do not believe that any hypothesis is universally applicable to the entire fraternity. There are some who have adapted and evolved to becoming KOLs, while some remain in their positions of perceived insecurity. Evolution is selective and that is nature’s way of weeding out the weak. Everyone without exception has to build relationships on the foundation of credibility and trust which is derived from success. Most shortcuts lead to perdition, the escalator to success is rarely sustainable. Take the ladder or stairs up.
So coming back to “Is insecurity good”? I believe that insecurity is not the opposite of complacency, it is an inexplicable feeling of being incomplete that keeps you from achieving more. It does not and should not have anything to do with external stimulus or instigation; the CIO gets to this position based on some core competencies and deliverables. S/he has adapted to the changes thus far and achieved success; why should the future be different?
I wonder if CIOs have lost their mojo so abruptly?
We all have been part of multiple project teams; projects big and small, spread over weeks to months and years, functional and cross-functional, department, geography, or enterprise wide. We have played roles ranging from team member, functional or project lead, sponsor, champion, or simply an observer. We have shared the euphoria on successful completion and anguish of failed projects, the pain of projects missing timelines, the anger when someone does not get it, the relief of recovering from missed milestones, heartbreak when a project was abandoned.
Every project has its set of protagonists, antagonists and fence-sitters; the mix largely determined not always by reality but the perception of impact to self, team, function, and organization. The difficulty level and the change to existing norms, processes, role, conventional wisdom also determines the enthusiasm demonstrated by everyone. Position within the organization hierarchy and age too play an important role in determining how we embrace the project and the change it brings about.
Change management has thus become an industry where specialists and consultants have defined frameworks to help overcome resistance to change. From proactive to resistive management, these practices collate experiences from multiple projects with a hope that some of them can be universally applied. The faith in such an intervention keeps fueling the growth of change specialists and enterprises continuing to invest in managing change with every project. There are a few basics that address the challenge: engagement, communication and agreement.
Project charters to creation of a team, and bringing them together typically defines the first few stages of any project. The collective belief in the outcomes is a basic necessity to create a foundation on which the project will be build. When a motley group gets together the first time, their collective conscience needs alignment to the common goal. Achieving this requires the leaders to engage the team in formal and informal settings. Their professional, social and emotional states require tuning with each other.
Communication needs a plan and then you break the plan to adapt to project progress; there will always be instances when a few will raise a furor that they were not informed or involved or constrained from participation. Everyone in the team needs to take charge of communication rather than a few chosen ones tasked with it. It is not just status reports, newsletters, and email campaigns, but open and honest dialogue within the team across hierarchy and laterally, is the best mechanism to keep the spirits high and aligned.
Whenever a group assembles, there is disagreement, conflict, and politics; projects with significant change also bring fear of the unknown, surfaces insecurities, and highlights missing competencies. These emotions and states challenge not just the project, at times also the company and business continuity. It does not matter if they were mediocre or high performers in earlier roles, or their longevity; the fact that they have to change is unpalatable to the human mind by design.
Young are impressionable and embrace all ideas without judging them; as we grow older we benchmark any new ideas with our past and what we believe is correct. We want things to be white or black equated to right or wrong rather than as an alternative view or way of working. What we disagree with is not necessarily wrong. This fixation to slot every action or decision into two buckets leads to conflict and a change averse behavior. We all learn through experience as there is a limit to what we can gain from others.
Every day is a discovery of our ignorance; we have to unlearn the past to learn something new. Giving up old beliefs is always difficult, they were part of our lives and brought us where we are. As Marshall Goldsmith said “What got you here, won’t get you there.” I believe that change starts from self. Change is a threat when done TO us, but an opportunity when done BY us. Threats are resisted, opportunities are embraced. We have to give up being a caterpillar to become a butterfly.
Change is like that only!
Her castle suddenly appeared to be like a pack of cards precariously balanced which could come down collapsing at the slightest hint. The new person had a new agenda, a new style, a new set of ideas and notions on how your department should function, a new direction, and a new set of KPIs. Almost everything she painstakingly built now appears to require change. She looked around to find that for most of the organization there was no issue with the new scenario, it’s just her and a few.
Her meetings with the new boss were a discussion in stretching the boundaries and defining the new ropes; she was pushed into new corners and suddenly everything that was working was being labelled as needs improvement. Her old boss sympathised with her but leaves her to fend for herself. He had only broken the news to her a few days before the organization change announcement saying that it was for the larger good of the company. She felt like the sky was falling but maintained her composure.
She was a star performer, which is why she were hired; the company needed a strong leader to drive change and she delivered to promise and more, her credibility preceded her joining and she ensured that it held good against all measures. She contemplated a change and banished the thought quickly; she was a fighter and a survivor, she also had a lot happening and many initiatives riding on her shoulders. The situation required a different approach that eluded her. So she started spreading into her network to seek help.
Everyone told her that she needs to understand the personality and drivers of her new boss and then work towards adapting to them. Like she manages her team, she also needs to manage upwards. After all, the new person too is a professional and has a pedigree because of which he has been hired. There may be challenges, there will be opportunities too; it is up to her to decide how she want to use them. She was disheartened, her professional pride had been hurt; she had attempted steps with limited success.
Organization changes have a way of upsetting the best of plans; at times these are internal, they could also be driven by external, environmental and industry factors. Leaders have to adapt to the situation and change strategies and plans; it is foolhardy to stay emotionally attached to them. Do not take it as a personal or professional affront; it impacts your ability to succeed. Appealing to your previous boss may project you as a weak individual. If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.
I have observed many good CIOs unable to accept and start believing that their winning formula is being challenged. Some take the drastic step of leaving the organization to find greener pastures elsewhere. The escapist route may bring short-term personal victory, but it gets you back to the starting point where you have to build credibility all over again. Those who are smart build relationships to overcome the situation and recreate success. I believe that the choices are driven by personal values.
Don’t drift, make a choice!
We need IT support and expertise to scale up the application; there are a few enhancements and some bugs that need to be fixed. For us it has worked well for the last year and we believe that it can deliver similar benefits to other parts of the company. You know the efficiency it has given us has helped meet our targets and we now measure favourably on most KPIs. Can you organize for the resources at the earliest? Thus started a discovery of an application that had gone business critical!
The company had engaged a big name consulting firm to help in a business transformation. The project had been announced with big fanfare and branding that had everyone excited with the potential outcomes. The initiative took off quickly with key process identification and definition of measurement criteria. Review meetings began with the realization to promise while dashboards sprung up all over the place. These charged up everyone and the movement spread quickly.
Everyone applauded the effort which was cascaded to a few sites with the same level of success thereby ensuring that the model was robust and scalable. The consultants had created a working spreadsheet model that automated the critical process chain and helped improve the decision making. It worked well for the select set of users who proudly displayed the results to anyone and everyone who wanted to know more about their success. People moved on to other things and soon this was forgotten.
The CIO had no inkling of the spreadsheet becoming mission critical to the unit and the slow virulent spread of the solution. It did not cross the business teams’ mind to move on to an integrated and scalable formal application that would integrate with the data sources rather than continue taking data dump and manipulating to get to where they wanted. No one challenged the process as it slowly crept on until the data size became unwieldy and a few locations wanted to tweak the model.
That is when the CIO was approached to rescue the situation. They wanted a technical resource to help fix and deploy the solution. It was a precarious situation for the CIO whether to push back or fall in line and support the business critical application. There was pressure from the stakeholders and some CXOs to support the solution. The easy way out was to let go; after all, the project did have visibility and everyone knew about it, so why make an issue. But that would have set a precedent!
My friend was not known to be politically correct and ready to take a stand on principles; for him that was the only way to do things. And that’s what he did; he asked the team to submit the documentation of the system based on which the team would determine whether the program could be supported or redevelopment was the way out. He went on to deplore the situation with the CXO responsible and instructed his team to follow his diktat. Reconciliatory moves to find a compromise were brushed aside brusquely.
This was not a typical case of rogue or shadow IT that ignored the IT function or the CIO intentionally. It was never expected to become a business critical solution to be deployed across locations. Every function uses spreadsheet to address simple data capture, analysis or sometimes address tasks that conventional solutions are unable to fulfill. Quick and dirty spreadsheet or other out-of-the-box solutions are typical to any company today. They crystallize the need which IT is able to qualify and address.
I do not believe that there is a singular way to address this situation. All approaches are correct in the context of the situation and the reality of the involved stakeholders. It is important to address this tactfully without burning bridges. My friend knew the boundaries in which he could push back and where he needed to take a step back. Post acknowledgement of the issue, he asked the team to support the scale-up of the application in an integrated framework that had everyone move ahead.
What would you do in such a situation?
The CIOs represented first among equals; CIOs who had been consistently effective in creating an example for others to follow. This bunch of score and some more could have filled a museum with the accolades they had collectively received. They had gathered to listen to the wisdom of a few learned men. Their collective expertise could have solved many business and technology problems across industries. To a fly on the wall, their interactions provided interesting insights into human behavior.
They threw a range of technical questions at the speakers and some challenging cases which needed fair experience to resolve. They kept the chatter on through and post the session into the break and the beginning of the next one; the banter never ceased. It is not that they all were good friends or acquaintances or that they were from the same company or industry or shared interests; if at all they had probably met before in another similar forum or maybe not.
Careful observation revealed that within the group some voices were loud and incessant, some broke the monologues with their insights only to be interrupted by the dominance of the need for a few to be heard; or was it to hear their own voices over the others ? Their compulsive need to speak was amazing and unnerving and rather irritating after some time. “I have been there done that and know it all; I have seen all situations, even surreal ones that you cannot imagine. It makes me a winner!”
Bright eyed and confident of their ability and success, another part of the group participated with moderation; it is not that they were in any way lesser to the other group, but did not share the need to speak at every opportunity and sometimes force their way into a conversation. They made sense when they spoke, had questions that made sense (at least most of the time and more often than the first group for whom the sounds of their voices is the only thing that mattered). They were tolerable in comparison.
And then eyes fell on a group who rarely if at all opened their mouth. Through the conversations their contributions were restricted to non-verbal cues, an occasional attempt to get in sideways and then falling silent again. After a few attempts they would go back to fiddling with their smartphones only to awaken intermittently when a point was made where they had an opinion. Unfortunately their views if any will rarely be known to the masses. Their stories, travails and achievements will sound paler when compared to others.
I would hazard a guess that this dynamics manifests itself in every gathering of learned men and women across cultures, geographies and age groups. The participants even when chosen randomly will in relative degrees form similar alignments with a few dominating the proceedings while others defer to them. Spokespersons even when there is no consensus on the view or what is being said come from the first lot. A person in one group may move a few notches in another or demonstrate antonymous behavior.
Everyone likes and wants to win; some talk about it even when their achievements may have been lesser than others. Their forceful presentations create a momentum that takes them through. On the other hand a few winners rarely get noticed until someone takes up their cause. Which is a desirable stand and which is despicable? Should you not brag about your skills and goals attained because if you don’t no one would know. In today’s world how does one project self to get what is rightfully due?
There is an old Indian saying “the peacock danced in the forest; who saw it?” No one likes a braggart though everyone acknowledges success. Our conditioning refrains us from being the peacock with resplendent plume; show some restrain unless you are in the showbiz or have a career in politics. I think that if you are indeed endowed with the qualities that differentiate you from the herd go ahead and tell the world about it. There is a difference between modesty, being an introvert and humility. Know the difference and decide where you stand.
When the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going anymore because companies cut cost. In the last 4-5 years the economic, governance, and policy uncertainties across geographies, markets, industries and sentiment in general, have had an overall negative bias. We saw recessionary trends that never really went away; an after taste remains even today. Companies that have globalized continue to see challenges in some situations every day thus keeping the teams on their toes.
Cost cutting or management has become a way of life; we have all been through these cycles or what management types call S-curve of investments and cuts; the corporate strategy and agenda oscillates between cutting costs and creating efficiency when lead indicators of performance reveal that growth is stunted and profitability is taking a hit. The onus of efficiency many a times rests with the CIO who has a micro view of every process. Sooner or later the process reaches a break point within the constraints.
Green shoots that bring promise of the era of growth has most companies scrambling to invest again; with the herd mentality everyone then wants agility, process flexibility, and an ability to respond to the market faster than equally ill-prepared competitors. Why are you unable to deliver new functionality faster? Market will not wait for us to build systems at leisure; IT is not aligned to business reality, they do not understand business priorities and how to deliver to them.
The CIO retaliates and cites budget cuts in the past when the going was slow; when IT and business teams had some spare time, we decided to fine tune efficient processes rather than building new capability that could have helped retain market leadership. All good things take time to build and deliver; now putting more men on the job does not solve the problem. If you (Business) continue to look for the perfect solution, we might not complete before the next recessionary cycle making all the effort pointless.
This tug-of-war is played across many enterprises with no learning applied from past cycles of cuts and investments. It is like a knee jerk reaction to external factors that throws strategy out of the window and the company to the mercy of fickle minds and men. The short-term prevailing over the long-term takes away the flexibility to respond to market shifts with no latitude to adapt. Thus benefits available with sustained investments thus continue to stay elusive.
Can organizations and CIOs create a balance between the efficiency and flexibility agenda? Is such a position desirable and achievable? Can IT help the cause? I asked these questions to a few learned CIOs; everyone nodded unanimously to the fact that cost containment drives every few years has taken away a lot of energy. The yo-yo keeps them and their business folks running to stay in the same place. Discretionary budgets not being available now, the tussle for flexibility is an uphill journey.
Turning to a consultant amidst the group for wisdom of the ages, there was no solace in what she offered as advice. She propounded the obvious: stop investing and cutting cost in spurts. Don’t lose sight of your direction; focus on your customers, explore cloud, analytics…. With no real input coming from this quarter, we decided to brainstorm the issue. The nemesis was universal and thus participation eager; while we did not solve world hunger problems, an outline emerged that offered some promise.
The new engagement model with outcome based payments holds a lot of promise; as CIOs engage with the partner ecosystem to link outflow to projects delivering to business metrics, two things will change. Firstly business will have to define outcomes and their commitment upfront; this will impact discipline of execution and the ability to stay focused. The second change will be the acknowledgement of the role of IT in business excellence putting the CIO in the driver’s seat should s/he choose to take on the opportunity.
Are you ready?